By The Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger
How are your feet this evening? Good shape? Clean? We hope. Any foot washing necessary? Probably not till shower or bath time.
The foot washing of which we just read was a common custom in Jesus’ day. The roads of Palestine were dirt. In dry weather, they were inches deep in dust and in wet, they were liquid mud. The shoes ordinary people wore were sandals, which gave little protection against the dust or the mud. For that reason there were always great waterpots at the door of a house; and a servant was there with a pitcher and a towel to wash the soiled feet of the guests as they came in. Jesus’ little company of friends had no servants. The duties which servants would carry out in wealthier circles must have been shared among each other.(1) But not tonight.
As you Bible scholars are aware, John’s gospel is only one account of the Last Supper. We find parallel descriptions in the other gospels, each of them recalling the familiar words we so often associate with Maundy Thursday – “This is my body…This is my blood.” In Luke’s rendering we even find that an argument had sprung up among them as to who would be regarded as “the greatest.”(2) That may well have resulted in ruffled feathers, and such sore feelings that they had trooped into the upper room like a set of sulky schoolboys – not one among them willing to see the pitcher and basin and towel set there for their use, despite the fact that they normally would have taken turns with the task and thought nothing about it. Tonight all of them sat stubbornly in their places and would have none of the menial duty.(3) Jesus’ response was one of thinly veiled disgust at the behavior. No doubt, the foot washing exercise was a visible parable of kingdom expectations.
It would be lovely to say that this is a lesson the church has taken to its heart. But we know better. As one commentator has it,
So often, even in churches, trouble arises because someone does not get his place. So often even ecclesiastical dignitaries are offended because they did not receive the precedence to which their office entitled them. Here is the lesson that there is only one kind of greatness, the greatness of service. The world is full of people who are standing on their dignity when they ought to be kneeling at the feet of their brethren. In every sphere of life desire for prominence and unwillingness to take a subordinate place wreck the scheme of things. A player is one day omitted from the team and refuses to play any more. An aspiring politician is passed over for some office to which he thought he had a right and refuses to accept any subordinate office. A member of a choir is not given a solo and will not sing anymore. In any society it may happen that someone is given a quite unintentional slight and either explodes in anger or broods in sulkiness for days afterwards. When we are tempted to think of our dignity, our prestige, our rights, let us again see the picture of the Son of God, girt with a towel, kneeling at his disciples’ feet.(4)
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During World War II, England needed to increase its production of coal. Winston Churchill called together labor leaders to enlist their support. At the end of his presentation he asked them to picture in their minds a parade which he knew would be held in Piccadilly Circus after the war. “First,” he said, “would come the sailors who had kept the vital sea lanes open. Then would come the soldiers who had come home from Dunkirk and then gone on to defeat Rommel in Africa. Then would come the pilots who had driven the Luftwaffe from the sky. “Last of all,” he said, “would come a long line of sweat-stained, soot-streaked men in miner’s caps. Someone would cry from the crowd, ‘And where were you during the critical days of our struggle?’ And from ten thousand throats would come the answer, “We were deep in the earth with our faces to the coal.'”(5)
Not all the work that needs doing in this world is glorious or glamourous. But it is often the people with their “faces to the coal” – or, in the case of our lesson, “faces to the feet” – who get the job done.
An admirer once asked the late, great orchestra conductor Leonard Bernstein what was the most difficult instrument to play. He responded with quick wit: “Second fiddle. I can get plenty of first violinists, but to find one who plays second violin with as much enthusiasm or second french horn or second flute, now that’s a problem. And yet if no one plays second, we have no harmony.”(6)
You recall how our lesson on foot washing ends. After Jesus finishes, he says, “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
If it will be any encouragement to you, you should know that offering willing service is healthy for you…not only spiritually but physically too. A headline in American Health Magazine reads: ‘New research shows that doing good may be good for your heart, your immune system and your over-all vitality.’ According to this magazine, the University of Michigan’s Research Center found that doing regular volunteer work more than any other activity dramatically increased life expectancy and probably vitality. Men who do no volunteer work were two and one-half times as likely to die during the study as men who volunteered at least once a week. Scientists are also finding that doing good may be good for your immune system as well as your nervous system…In giving ourselves away, we may be saving ourselves.(7) Amen!
Maundy Thursday. “This is my body. This is my blood.” Foot washing. Slave work. OUR work. Our Christian calling. And as Jesus said, “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”
Let us pray.
O God, we confess to being reluctant servants. We like the cushy jobs, the positions of power and prestige, as much as anyone. Help us to not insist on them though, and to be willing to offer whatever service we might. In the name of Jesus. Amen!
1. William Barclay, The Gospel of John, Vol. 2, Daily Study Bible Series, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), p. 138-139
2. Luke 22:24
3. The Interpreter’s Bible, vol. VIII, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1954), p. 680
4. Barclay., p. 139-140
5. Don McCullough in Waking from the American Dream quoted in Bible Illustrator for Windows, (Hiawatha, IO: Parsons Technology, 1994)
6. Bible Illustrator for Windows
7. Eugene C. Dorsey, “Vital Speeches” : Volume LIV, no. 19, July 15, 1988
Copyright 1997, David E. Leininger.Used by permission.